Inertia Creeps: Massive Attack’s Mezzanine at 25

Looking back on the Bristol greats’ darkest album

Mezzanine tour poster (Image: eBay)

You’re driving late at night and you got your sound system throbbing to keep you awake, but there’s all kinds of ugly thoughts crawling through your mind as you’re trying to get home.

You haven’t been yourself for a while. You have an unhealthy obsessions with a someone special, or so you think. You never seem to be happy anymore. You can’t relate to your friends anymore. Why are you even going home? Where does this all lead you? Welcome to the end of millennium world of Massive Attack.

As much as grunge and gangsta rap in the States and Britpop on their own turf, Massive Attack created and defined the sound of the ’90s. Yacht Rock has its boosters back in the day and irony-laden kitsch fans now. Ambient had its chin-stroking, high brow cachet but the idea of ‘chill out’ made itself felt in the early ’90’s when U.K. dance ravers needed a way to recharge, thanks to the likes of the Orb and KLF.  But it was Massive Attack who codified this sound, this movement and made their uncool/geeky sleek sound into something very cool and very chic.

Adding to their mystique, they kept their faces off their albums and didn’t speak to the press often: You had to read through U.K. mag articles to find out that they were made up of a pair of DJ’s (Grantley “Daddy G” Marshall,  Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles), a graffiti artist turned rapper (Robert “3D” Del Naja) and an ambitious teen who called himself Tricky, otherwise letting other guest vocalists take over, creating a kaleidoscopic effect to their music. 

Their first two albums, Blue Lines (1991) and Protection (1994), were milestones, announcing something new and bold and fresh as much as Bitches Brew, Catch A FireWhat’s Going On, Never Mind the Bollocks or It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but in a much more subtle, sinuous way, more akin to Joni Mitchell’s wrenching Blue. Massive Attack proved that low-key dance music could be as gloomy or despondent as punk or death metal but also somehow melodic.  Though nobody would ever mistake them for the blues but Massive Attack’s sound similarly made itself as felt as deceptively simple depressing but potent music to commiserate with.

And, of course, like the reggae and dub that they loved, Massive Attack was disorientating. But instead of pulling apart and isolating instrumental parts, they chugged along in their own gloomy momentum. Their cool/chic sound has a despondent depth to it with a hint of trashiness, later helping to spawn pop-gloomsters like Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish.

Keeping their releases as spaced out as their music, their third album would take four years to come out but that wasn’t just because they wanted it to gestate but also because changes were brewing within the  mysterious group. After initially completing Mezzanine in late ’97, sessions dragged out for months as the group couldn’t bring themselves to record together.

Massive Attack Mezzanine, Virgin Records 1998

Vowles reached his limits and was gone soon after the record came out in April ’98, while Marshall took a powder by the following album, going on hiatus for a few years. Part of the contention came from a growing musical obsession from Del Naja. Post-punk music is usually thought of as jagged guitars and broken funk but he reimagined it and made it manifests itself as a bleaker, dystopian vision in subtler ways, even if it doesn’t seem to directly dial up Joy Division, PiL and Gang of Four at first. But the connection was there on Mezzanine with Unknown Pleasures (stern, distant, ghostly), Metal Box (dub obsessions, bleak outlook), post-Entertainment! GoF (sparse dance music).

Tellingly, while Massive Attack previously used James Brown and Pieces of a Dream samples on their previous album, here they corral the Cure and the Velvet Underground.  Even the album cover is revealing- a giant-sized menacing black beetle, looking ready to strike.

Oddly enough, their bleakest record up to that point also proved to be their best-selling album too, thanks to several singles that lead off the record. Blue Lines and Protection were a lot to live up to and credit them for not coasting on the same wave to end the decade with.  Their light/lithe atmosphere was pretty much gone and by comparison, the earlier albums sounded positively giddy, which they sure as hell weren’t on their own.


VIDEO: Massive Attack “Angel”

Opening track “Angel,” which become one of their best-known songs, introduced us to their darker sound with heavy guitar over chugging drum sample via Incredible Bongo Band’s “Last Bongo in Belgium” (which would also be used by Beastie Boys, Saint Etienne and Tori Amos). The pacing is still slow and turgid but something’s different now- there’s now a menacing vibe that wasn’t present before in their music, even with reggae legend Horace Andy chanting “love you, love you, love you…”  With the scene set or the album, the next thing we hear is the howling/siren intro for “Risingson,” leading to a fluttering, panned synth, ghostly effects, the buried Velvets sample and a loopy bass as 3D and Daddy trade vocals. The accompanying video is appropriately surreal and nightmarish.

Then we come to the big hit and where they actually gave Madonna the heave-ho. No joke- Madge was supposed to be featured on “Teardrop” but Massive Attack went with Cocteau Twins’ Elizbeth Fraser instead, while most any other group would have done the exact opposite. By now, if their lovely/melancholy original version hasn’t become an earworm for you, then you’ve probably heard the tune from the numerous cover versions or maybe from the TV show House. Any way that you’ve come across it, Fraser is striking- both beautiful and dour in her charm while MA keep things wisely low-key (heartbeat drums, light harpsichord, menacing piano notes) around her to let her shine. The accompanying singing fetus video is both sublime and creepy as hell.


VIDEO: Massive Attack “Teardrop”

Rounding out the album’s top-heavy parade of singles, “Inertia Creeps” draws on an Ultravox sample and a Turkish/Middle East mood. Here, Del Naja whispers about a broken relationship over elastic percussion sounds. The NSFW video that accompanies it proves that the song is a great soundtrack for unseemly, triste hook-ups and voyeuristic urges- just imagine the fun they must have had filming that.

Almost as a mid-point respite from horrors before,  the instrumental “Exchange” takes us on a more low-key spacy groove with its placid flanged synths and loud slo-mo drums (a dispute over an Isaac Hayes sample here would mean that the group would have to hand over songwriting credits).  “Dissolved Girl” begins with a pulsing bass and looping Steve Reich-like phased keyboard figure as a base for Sarah Jay Hawley’s breathy vocals while a stuttering guitar makes itself felt, getting louder and heavier as the song progresses- so cinematic was this song that it would be used in both The Matrix and The Jackal. The album hits a bit of a dip with a cover of John Holt’s reggae classic “Man Next Door” with its Cure and Led Zep samples- the paranoia of the song fits the album well and Horace Andy sings it admirably but it isn’t distinct enough from the original or the 1980 UK hit cover by the Slits, with Ari Up wild warbling up top, plus the thunderous “When The Levee Breaks” drums were already used to better effect by the Beasties on their debut.

By then, we’re treated to another respite on “Black Milk,” with Fraser on vocals again, though this time she bears down more on the atmospheric and dreaminess and less on the melody, giving us some of the breeziness of the band’s earlier albums. But soon, we’re taking back to the eerie vibe on the title track with Del Naja and Marshall quietly, menacingly trading vocals again.  Maybe most intriguing here is “Group Four” with Del Naja sounding as downcast as the music and Fraser trading off vocals with him, sounding light and air- it’s a strange mix of their old and new sound- it would have been interesting to hear more of this melding of styles like this on the album.  To finish off, “(Exchange)” is now heard again, reprised with Andy on vocals over an easy-going/spacey undercurrent, with bits of string swells, gently zooming synth and vinyl crackle, making for a more benign, peaceful ending to the album.

From there, after 2003’s 100th Window, their only album otherwise has been 2010’s Heligoland, which puts them on an even slower track than usual though they’ve been involved in a number of multi-media projects and nowadays, Tricky and Marshall have returned to the fold. It’s no disgrace that quality-wise, Mezzanine doesn’t hit their high standards from before and MA still maintained themselves as a cutting edge/influential act and even strengthened their commercial status. Most any other band would be fine to leave it at that but don’t think that we’ve heard the last of them.


Jason Gross

 You May Also Like

Jason Gross

Jason Gross is the editor/founder of Perfect Sound Forever, one of the first and longest-running online music magazines. He has written for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Time Out, AP, New York, MTV, Oxford American, Billboard, MOJO, The Wire, and Blurt. Reissues and collections that he's produced included Delta 5, Essential Logic, Kleenex/Liliput, DNA, Oh OK and OHM –The Early Gurus of Electronic Music. He lives in New York with his girlfriend and 30 plush cats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *